Getting pulled over by police is a stressful experience, and all the more so for people with autism, who often experience heightened anxiety, sensory issues, and and challenges with verbal communication.
A new Texas law, effective as of September 1st, addressed this issue, taking into account that people with autism who are unable to answer an officer’s questions may be at risk. Titled the Samuel Allen Law, the legislation is named after a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autistic spectrum, who has campaigned for special identification on state driver’s licenses. Samuel’s mother, Jennifer Allen, is the founder of the website Asperger’s101. According to a report last month by the Texas Tribune, Allen said her activism began with her fear when Samuel started driving. While thinking of ways to help him, Allen realized there were others like her son, also in need of help.
Under the new law, a person who brings a doctor’s note to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles will be given a code associated with his or her license plate number. The code will appear for an officer when he or she looks it up during a traffic stop. Thus, the officer will know before approaching a vehicle that the driver might have challenges with verbal communication, Allen explained.
In addition to helping those with autism, the bill could be beneficial for police officers, who often face uncertainty during traffic stops. Allen said the bill has been endorsed by police chiefs in San Antonio and Houston, and the head of the Highway Patrol Division of the Department of Public Safety. She added that implementing the change was fairly simple, requiring nothing more than a coder and a law to go into effect. The database approach is more effective than a card, she said, since a drivers’ actions could be misinterpreted when they reach for a card or try to explain that they’re getting their card.
“The officer doesn’t know if he’s getting a gun,” Allen explained. “That’s where communication can go so wrong, and often wind up in handcuffs and sometimes even death.”
Allen believes the law is a low-cost solution to preventing miscommunication between officers and people with autism and intends to share her plan with lawmakers in other states.
“Texas is a trailblazer,” she said.